Havana: a city of colour and surprises
The buildings in Cuba’s capital may be crumbling yet there is a great
sense of civic pride
Cuba is full of surprises. On my first morning in a Havana casa
particular (room in a private home), where all the hangers in my
wardrobe were homemade, the young woman who brought breakfast invited me
to accompany her into work.
Her name was Yvette, and as far as I could understand her job was
playing oboe in some kind of band. She flagged down a pre-1959, fixed
route taxi collectivo and 50 cents brought us to the centre of Vedado,
the newest part of Havana.
We hopped out beside the Cuba Libre hotel, opened as a Hilton in 1959
then commandeered a few months later by Fidel as his command centre
during the revolution. Around the corner was Yvette’s job, and my next
two hours were spent in a crammed rehearsal room thrilling to the
glorious noise of the 60-piece Cuban State Television Orchestra, with
the highlight of their extensive repertoire being a swinging salsa
version of the old Strauss classic El Danubio Azul.
Afterwards I made my way along 17th Street, admiring the succession of
majestic, crumbling Deco houses, each more beautiful than the last. I
couldn’t help but wonder how long it will be before most of them are
snapped up by pimply tech millionaires from Palo Alto now that Cuba has
been opened up for tourism from the US.
There certainly were a large number of tourists from el Norte around,
and when I went to hear some world-class jazz in legendary club La Zorra
y el Cuervo (The Fox and the Crow) it was hard to ignore the bunch of
well-oiled retirees from the Midwest clapping along out of time. They
did settle down after a while, as I imagine Cuba will once it gets over
the shock of a sudden influx of Americans and their money.
The signs are good – there is a great sense of civic pride in Havana,
and the Office of the City Historian, a huge state department of
architects and planners tasked with renovating the many near-derelict
buildings, makes sure that each part of the city remains properly
mixed-use rather than turning it into some kind of Cuban theme park.
Laps of the square
This means that the local equivalent of Grafton Street has a maternity
hospital (on publicly-owned land, naturally) and the Old Town’s Plaza
Vieja hosts a primary school, where the pupil’s gym class has them
running in between the tourists as they do laps of the square.
I did see another side to the story when I visited Harris Brothers,
reputedly the best supermarket in the city. They had limited stock on
offer; not much more than bottled water, rum, shampoo and jars of
mayonnaise on otherwise empty shelves. Directly opposite, beside an
abandoned van with no wheels, workmen were putting the finishing touches
on a Mont Blanc fountain pen shop.
The plan was to spend a few days in Havana then strike out for the
country, but I quickly discovered that despite the relaxed pace of life,
leaving things to the last minute doesn’t really work in Cuba – there
were no bus tickets to be had, and I didn’t particularly feel like
spending six hours in the back of a truck.
Accommodation was the same – figuring that all the casas in the
guidebook would be well booked out I tried Airbnb, only to discover it
doesn’t take bookings from inside Cuba. Thankfully, the landlady of one
of the booked-out casas was happy to figure out what I was trying to say
in broken Spanish and found me an alternative.
Havana is made up of three distinct cities, more than interesting enough
for a 10- day trip. I started in well-to-do Vedado to the west, before
moving to the Old Town in the east, all the while exploring Centro in
Centro is the barrio, the roughest part of Havana – a dimly lit,
forbidding looking place with lean youths on bikes flitting through the
shadows and wheezing Russian Ladas carefully negotiating gaping
crevasses in the street. This was another surprise – in any other
country no tourist would dream of venturing into this part of town,
especially after dark. But I don’t think I’ve ever felt so safe, even
with a camera.
Friendly and polite
Cubans are so friendly and polite that even the hustlers are easy to
deal with – I was regularly asked if I wanted a chica, cigarro, internet
card or all three, and when I demurred I’d get a big smile and best
wishes for the rest of my evening.
As time passed I was glad that my very basic level of Spanish started to
improve – one night while photographing a gang of youths in Centro, one
of them said “Tu no entiendes Español, coño?” (You don’t understand
Spanish, coño?) and I was able to give him a big smile and reply in
Spanish “I understand ‘coño’.” His friends thought it was hilarious. If
you don’t understand the word “coño”, a quick viewing of Scarface or any
episode of Narcos will put you right.
Surprises around every corner makes the city a photographer’s paradise –
it’s not just the vivid colours and amazing light but all of the events,
the richness of life being lived in full view. Trying to capture
everything from a girl emerging from a cloud of white smoke to a
policewoman in mid-argument, my camera rarely left my hand.
There’s so much to see on the streets, so many pictures to take, that
the whole time I was there I only made it to two museums – the first was
the Museum of Chocolate, which happily turned out to be just a great
chocolate shop with a few glass cases of implements.
The second was the Museo de Revolucion, which I found unexpectedly
moving. From the bullet holes in the marble staircase left when the
rebels stormed the building to the armour-plated tractors in the
courtyard, the museum told the story of a small bunch of young men (and
Raúl Castro, looking about 15 in the pictures from the time) who set out
on a near-certain fight to the death and to their surprise ended up
liberating the country. Pride of place goes to the yacht that carried
them from Mexico, the Granma, now housed inside a giant glass box,
making it look like some kind of revolutionary Damian Hirst installation.
Cuba is pricier than I expected: while accommodation is cheap, getting
around does add up (after a few days I was politely informed by an
American that the taxi collectivos are reserved for Cuban citizens). I
tried one of the bright yellow, egg-shaped tuk-tuks, but one trip was
enough to convince me that walking and official taxis were a far better
option. As it zipped between the hulking 1950s cars at terrifying speed
I took little comfort from the fact that at least the helmeted driver
might survive the spectacular crash that was surely around the next
corner – there wasn’t much hope for his bare-headed passenger.
I had also been warned to lower my expectations of the food, and with
good reason; if you want to eat anything much better than a Cuban
pressed sandwich (ham, Swiss cheese, roast pork, pickles and salami)
you’ll pay a fair bit for it – such as the small plate of lobster
risotto I treated myself to at the rooftop bar of legendary restaurant
La Guarida, a beacon of fine dining in the middle of Centro.
Splurging like this meant I needed to use ATMs more often than I’d
expected, and I quickly discovered they had their own, particularly
Cuban temperament. “La máquina está loca,” grumbled an old woman in the
queue beside me, encouraging me to keep trying – it worked on the fifth
Another price to be paid in Cuba is an inevitable bout of food
poisoning. Whatever it was that didn’t agree with me put me in bed for
an uninterrupted 18-hour fever dream, which actually wasn’t all that
unpleasant. Coming to the following morning, I looked up and saw I
hadn’t hallucinated it – there really was an ace of hearts stuck to the
ceiling above the bed. The landlady explained that this was because I
was staying in the habitación matrimonial or bridal suite.
Aside from the heat, the light, and the colours, the best part of the
entire trip was experiencing the openness and incredible spirit of the
Cuban people. I hope nothing will take it away, and I also hope I can
get back there soon to experience even more of it.